Study: People automatically eat healthier after starting a regular exercise routine

AUSTIN, Texas — Can’t bring yourself to eat salad more frequently and keep away from the cookie jar? Fit a regular workout into your schedule. Research shows that people instinctively make healthier choices with their diet after just a few months on a new exercise regimen.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin studied 2,680 college students ages 18 to 35 who were not exercising regularly or dieting at the time of the study. Participants began a workout routine and after about four months, these once-sedentary individuals who were more prone to eating unhealthy foods now found themselves actually craving lean meats, fruits and vegetables, while passing on unhealthy options like fried foods and sodas.

“Many people in the study didn’t know they had this active, healthy person inside them,” says corresponding author Molly Bray, chair of the Nutritional Sciences department at UT Austin and a pediatrics faculty member at Dell Medical School, in a university release. “Some of them thought their size was inevitable. For many of these young people, they are choosing what to eat and when to exercise for the first time in their lives.”

Participants, who admitted they didn’t exercise for more than 30 minutes a week when the study began, were tasked with completing a 30-minute aerobic workout three times a week for 15 weeks. Individuals could choose from various types of exercises, including treadmills, elliptical machines, or exercise bikes. They were asked to not change their diets during the study period.

But the research team was struck when they learned that participants began making healthier food choices naturally, despite being told to keep their diets the same.

“The process of becoming physically active can influence dietary behavior,” says Bray. “One of the reasons that we need to promote exercise is for the healthy habits it can create in other areas. That combination is very powerful.”

Participants in the study were students at the University of Houston and the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The study was published in the International Journal of Obesity.